Interview: David F Sandberg on ‘Shazam! 2’ and How ‘The Flash’ Changed the Movie
“Big” is the operative word in most superhero movies. They’re blockbusters with epic stakes and budgets. But the original Shazam’s goal was not big but “Big” — as in the Tom Hanks bodyswap comedy about a boy who magically transforms into an adult. When Shazam!’s orphaned protagonist Billy Batson (Asher Angel) says a magic word, he becomes a swaggering superhero — while still maintaining his teenage brain and preoccupations like underage drinking and impressing girls.
Although there’s been a lot of upheaval behind the scenes of DC Studios since the last Shazam! movie — like a new pair of co-CEOs that includes Shazam! producer Peter Safran — the new sequel, Shazam! Fury of the Gods, was made by almost the exact same creative team as the first. That includes Safran, co-writer Henry Gayden, and director David F. Sandberg who did a stellar job turning 2019’s Shazam! into one of the most purely fun movies in the history of DC.
When I spoke to Sandberg about directing Fury of the Gods, I asked how his marching orders changed from the first movie to the second, and — because Billy Batson shares his powers with his adoptive siblings — about the challenges of directing a movie with six superheroes instead of one. He also revealed why Fury of the Gods didn’t build off the post-credits scene of the first Shazam and how DC’s original release calendar, which would have seen The Flash hit theaters well before Fury of the Gods, affected his film.
When I spoke to you about the first Shazam!, you’d said that the original pitch that Warner Bros. brought to you for the film was “Big with super powers.” What was the pitch for Fury of the Gods?
“We wanna go bigger.”
I see, so “Bigger with super powers.”
Yeah, Bigger with super powers. [laughs] No, I mean, that was kind of the thing. In the first movie, we got to see a little bit of the family, they all got powers. But in this one it’s like let’s see more of them. Let’s have a bigger threat, and have Shazam face something much bigger. This would be the movie where he has to grow up, you know? Become the adult superhero.
You mentioned the whole family being involved, which was such a fun surprise at the end of the first movie. But here, they’re a much bigger part of the story. How much more complicated does it get making a movie with basically six superheroes instead of one?
Very complicated! Like you say, it’s six superheroes, and like three villains and monsters and parents. It is like doing a little Justice League or Avengers, but without those resources. So it’s a challenge. And it’s a practical challenge as well, just how you stage and block things when you have like 11, 12 people on screen at once. So it’s hard. And also story-wise; everyone needs to have their moment and their own little journey. So it’s hard, but it’s cool to get to do something so big.
When you say it’s challenging blocking a scene with 11 people, how do you solve that? Do you use storyboards?
Yeah, with the more complicated things, they’re storyboarded or pre-viz. But a lot of times, you kind of have to figure it out on set. Because we were working pretty fast.
But to be honest, there are a couple moments like a scene towards the end where they’re all in that house and they get a visitor. And I was like “I don’t even know how to fit the people into this room and how to do it in an interesting way.” So they all just bunched up or lined up. They’re all just standing there in a big clump of people. Because it’s like, I don’t even know what to do here.
Right. The other thing I was wondering regarding the family was whether it was tough to get all of these actors back. The first movie they had cameos; now they’re full supporting characters. Did they all have to agree to return for a potential sequel when they signed on for their roles in the original?
Yeah, you have to get them all to agree. But the good thing is that they really are like a Shazam family — or the “Shazamily” they call themselves. And they all really like each other. They hang out together when we’re not shooting. So it was like a big reunion that everyone was very eager to happen.
You tweaked Shazam’s costume a little for this film. What was the impetus behind changing it, and what were you going for with the new design?
To me, it was just about trying out some new things. We did the first movie, let’s do something different and not just do the same things. Let’s see what we can improve upon. Some things weren’t necessarily even about improvement; more just trying something different. Like in the first one, I did the version of the shorter cape with the hood.
The hood is from “The New 52.” For this one, it was like “Well, we did that. Let’s try and do more of a traditional cape and see how that feels.” The funny thing is that for me, I knew we were [originally] supposed to come out after The Flash and I knew that movie was gonna mess with timelines and multiverses and things like that. So I was like “Well, you know, we can get away with changing all this, because Barry messed with the timeline.” Now we’ve come out before The Flash, and I don’t have a good explanation for it beyond, like, “It’s magic!”
[laugh] That’s interesting that you made the movie assuming you’d be after The Flash but now it’s coming out months before that film. Tell me what it’s like making a movie like this in the midst of the DC Universe being in flux like that. From the outside, it seems like you’re not only a piece of bigger puzzle, but you’re a piece of a puzzle that’s changing as you solve it. I’m curious how that works.
The good thing is that Shazam! has always been in his own corner, doing his own thing. It hasn’t really been tied to the bigger [DC] story. We haven’t had to incorporate things, or not been able to use certain things; we’ve just been able to focus on our little Shazam! movies. I think that’s been beneficial, especially now with all the changes.
They’ve told us that there’s nothing in these movies that contradicts what they’re doing for the future. So nothing needed to change. If they want, they can do more Shazam! movies. That’s the good thing about being more of a separate thing.
I was going to ask whether all the changes behind the scenes had a tangible effect on the finished product. It sounds like maybe not, but you tell me.
No, no, the movie didn’t change. And the movie’s been finished since the end of October last year because we were originally coming out against Avatar. So we were on a much earlier schedule.
The first Shazam! ended with a post-credits scene teasing a team-up between Mark Strong’s Sivana and the classic Shazam bad guy Mister Mind. Fury of the Gods’ villains are the Daughters of Atlas. How did you decide on them as the antagonists in the sequel, and did you ever consider actually making Mister Mind and Sivana the focus instead?
They were never seen as sort of the main villains in this movie. But there was an early version before we wrote the full script, when it was still at the treatment stage, where Mr. Mind and Sivana were in it. And it was actually Mr. Mind who enabled the Daughters of Atlas to come to Earth as part of his bigger plan. But that turned into just being too much story to tell in the runtime, you know? So we had to lose that and just had the Daughters come here on their own. But that was the plan, to continue on with that, or at least show that he’s still in the background working his thing.
Tell me about working with Helen Mirren on this film. Is she an actor who comes with a lot of questions about her character or DC Comics?
Well, I don’t think she cares too much about the DC of it all. [laughs] But I know she loved the first movie, I think that’s why she wanted to do it. But she’s ready to do anything. She does her own stunts in this movie; we had to talk her out of doing certain stunts. And then, she’ll tell you, she actually broke her finger doing one of those stunts. She didn’t tell anyone; I didn’t find out until much later because she just kept going. She’s hardcore like that.
What did she want to do that you had to talk her out of?
Well, it was things like getting thrown into a wall, yanked into a wall, things like that. But we did put her in a harness and do all kinds of things with her. There’s that moment where Shazam lifts her up and holds her above his head. That’s actually Helen getting lifted up above his head. That’s why we have that camera angle from the top, just to show people that she did that. And she’s the one throwing Zach between the walls and all of that.
One character I was surprised was in the movie was Djimon Hounsou’s Wizard, who seemingly died in the first movie. And, I mean, foolish me, no one ever really “dies” in comics, but I thought he was dead after Shazam! And then not only is he in the sequel, he’s got a much bigger role this time.
Yeah, we just loved Djimon so much and, like you say, he didn’t have a big part in the first one. We wanted to do more with him. And I think the pairing up of him and Jack Dylan Grazer worked even better than I thought; like him as the straight man and Jack as the annoying kid. Djimon’s really funny! I love that we could use him more, and like you say, no one in comic books is ever really dead.
You mentioned Jack Dylan Grazer’s Freddy, and he was my favorite part of the first movie and he is really fun in this one as well. He’s so good, I could easily see him spun off into his own series or movie. Have there been any kinds of discussions like that? Because to me, he is the secret ace in the hole of Shazam!
There’s never been talks about it, but it’s certainly not a bad idea. I really like Freddy, and think he’s such a great character, which is why we wanted to have more of him in this movie. The tricky thing is since you have two actors playing the same part [Grazer plays Freddy in human form, Adam Brody plays his superhero form] and they’re both really good, it’s like “Ugh, we want Jack Dylan Grazer but we also want Adam Brody!” You have to pick and choose.
But we wanted to have a lot of Freddy in this one and give him an arc of finding out that there’s value to him as a human — that he isn’t just valuable as a superhero. He can be a hero all his own.
Yeah. What you’re talking about in terms of balancing both actors; that’s a problem you have five different times in this movie, because all the heroes except Mary are played by multiple people. That had to be very hard to balance.
Yeah. And also, if these people can be superheroes, then they would probably be superheroes a lot of the time. Which is why you have to do things like “Oh they lost their powers,” and things like that, just because we then get to see our great young actors as well.
You’ve managed to introduce some pretty wild ideas from the comics in the two movies, like Mr. Mind and so on. As someone who enjoys the outlandish side of comics, I would love to know if you think there will ever be a Tawky Tawny [Shazam’s friend from the comics who is a talking tiger] in a Shazam! movie. You’ve alluded to him, paid homage to him, but he hasn’t shown up.
I think there could be. When we first started talking about what this movie would be, and we were looking at what they were doing in the comics, we were like “If we do have these different lands you get to through these doors [in the Rock of Eternity, the Shazam Family’s lair] then we could have Tawky Tawny come from one of those doors and have that be the explanation. Because we have wanted to put him in the movies. We just think that you have to have a little bit of explanation for something like that. You can’t just have a tiger in a suit that’s talking right away.
Shazam! Fury of the Gods is scheduled to open in theaters on Friday, March, 17.